While few had foreseen Malcolm Jenkins becoming a credible heir to Brian Dawkins, what shouldn’t have come as a surprise after six prodigious seasons in Philadelphia was that his tenure would end in similar fashion to that of the Eagles great.
If Dawkins was once deemed expendable, then it can happen to anyone. In fact, when it comes to elite players synonymous with one NFL team ending their careers in other environs, it occurs more times than not.
Jenkins’ circumstances were different than Dawkins’ were more than a decade ago. He hadn’t spend his entire career with the Eagles. He wasn’t as accomplished. But he left an indelible mark, for reaching a level where he could be mentioned in the same breath as the Hall of Famer, and of course, for helping bring Philly its only Super Bowl title.
There has been a furor over his departure as a result. The Eagles surely understood they were more likely to be criticized than a popular player. But when Jenkins agreed to terms with his original NFL team in New Orleans last Wednesday, and the particulars of the contract were reported, it became increasingly clear why there was a divorce.
Jenkins declined to comment for this story, as did Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. Jenkins wrote a parting letter to Philly for The Players’ Tribune, but he didn’t go into great detail about his departure. The Eagles haven’t commented on any of their moves since the new league year began last week under directives from the NFL.
They did issue a statement after they officially declined the option on Jenkins’ contract for 2020. But aside from the expected platitudes about his contributions, the Eagles said only that the sides had mutually agreed to part ways.
While that is true to an extent, that was about all both sides could agree on during a yearlong dispute that started when Jenkins first expressed unhappiness with his contract. Sources close to both parties and familiar with their conversations paint a picture of inevitability once the Eagles declined to rework his deal last spring.
Both Jenkins and the Eagles had expressed some hope in January that he would return, but a separation was ultimately a foregone conclusion. What happened behind the scenes wasn’t much different than what transpires before there is a split: a difference of opinion regarding value.
Jenkins didn’t want top safety money or an average salary of $12 million to $13 million, as had been reported elsewhere. He was under contract with the Eagles for one more season at $7.6 million. He wanted a higher salary, of course, but what he wanted most was a two-year commitment.
The Eagles offered to “tweak” his salary for 2020, but that was far as negotiations would get this offseason. That was the indication to Jenkins and his people that he wouldn’t get a new deal with guaranteed money in 2021, and they asked for his release before free agency.
Roseman tried to trade Jenkins to recoup something for the 32-year-old safety. But there wasn’t a market because interested teams knew that if they waited, he would be available without forfeiting a draft pick.
A return to the Saints was Jenkins’ preference, despite the bitterness he had felt when New Orleans didn’t aggressively try to retain him during the 2014 offseason. Saints coach Sean Payton had said several times since that it was a decision he had regretted most.
Jenkins could have been willing to dangle himself to the highest bidder, but when the Saints offered a four-year, $32 million contract — the most important component being that $16.25 million would be guaranteed in the first two years — he was set.
In less than 24 hours after the Eagles announced Jenkins’ exit, he had found another team, one that would face Jenkins’ old team this year at the Linc and one that could stand in the way of that team when greater objectives are considered.
Roseman knew that Jenkins would likely find a team willing to meet his demands. He knew the Saints would likely be a candidate. But the Eagles’ state of affairs is different than that of New Orleans, who might have only a few more hurrahs with 41-year-old quarterback Drew Brees.
They have a younger quarterback (Carson Wentz) with an increasing salary. They set a course this offseason to get younger. Jenkins, like tackle Jason Peters, would be collateral damage as the Eagles turned over the roster.
But age wasn’t the only factor. If Roseman had thought Jenkins could maintain his level of play into 2021, he would have offered the second year. But this was a preemptive strike against repeating some of the recent mistakes the Eagles have made in keeping core players past their expiration dates.
Only time will tell if Roseman was right.
The Eagles had once been one of the better franchises in predicting a veteran’s decline. Andy Reid and Joe Banner had avoided the pitfalls of sentimentality when it came to beloved players like Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan, Troy Vincent, et al.
They took a similar stance with Dawkins, but they didn’t want him to leave, nor did they think he would. But their initial contract offer during the 2009 offseason paled in comparison to what the Denver Broncos had offered and the 35-year-old Dawkins bailed. Some fans still haven’t forgiven the Eagles.
There are obvious differences with Jenkins — one was under contract, the other was not — but Roseman wants to avoid what happened post-Dawkins. The Eagles were unable to replace not only his production on the field but his leadership off it. Dawkins, meanwhile, would have three effective seasons in Denver.
He wasn’t the same player he was in his prime although he did make the Pro Bowl in two of those seasons. But Dawkins’ worth wasn’t always measured in numbers. The same could be said of Jenkins. He led the Eagles in tackles in five of six seasons, had 58 pass breakups, forced 23 turnovers and tallied 5 1/2 sacks over that span, but many of his contributions didn’t show up in the stat sheet or weren’t discernible to the untrained eye.
Last offseason, while Jenkins stayed away during spring workouts, he posted film of plays that exemplified his innate ability to improvise when needed or cover for missed assignments. The market for safeties had exploded that offseason and Jenkins, believing himself to be among the best at his position, wanted to be compensated.
The top safeties were making around $14 million a year and Jenkins, who had signed a four-year, $35 million extension in 2016, was being paid around $5 million less. The Eagles told him that they wouldn’t restructure a four-year contract two years in and didn’t budge.
To get Jenkins to report for mandatory minicamp in June, owner Jeffrey Lurie met him at the NovaCare Complex and made two promises: that the Eagles would begin negotiations on a new deal during the bye week, and that if they couldn’t come to an agreement during the following offseason, they would grant his release before free agency.
Roseman would lock up guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Lane Johnson in November, but aside from a few cursory conversations, talks with Jenkins never materialized. The Eagles defense, meanwhile, had been inconsistent. As defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz might say when asked to assess Jenkins’ performance, he played like a 5-7 safety through 12 games.
But his effort down the stretch mirrored that of the team overall. In the division-clinching victory over the New York Giants in the season finale, Jenkins’ fourth-quarter forced fumble was a game-changer. And he was arguably the Eagles’ best defender in the first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Follow the leader
Jenkins hardly played safety in the post anymore and spent more time covering tight ends than wide receivers, but his versatility allowed Schwartz to keep a fifth defensive back on the field vs. two-tight-end personnel. He blitzed more than ever last season.
Was Jenkins as fast as he once was? It’s unlikely that even he would make that assertion. But he showed few signs of slowing down. He played every snap for the second straight season and in six seasons missed only two out of 6,939 defensive snaps because of injury. Jenkins also played special teams.
All told, Jenkins played more than 7,500 snaps with the Eagles. Perhaps he’s nearing his tipping point. But it would be hard to bet against Jenkins, whose competitiveness is legendary. He likely doesn’t need additional motivation, but the Eagles provided some if needed.
There were voices in the NovaCare Complex that argued for Jenkins to return. But Roseman kept his eye on the big picture as free agency opened. He had prioritized spending on a cornerback. The Eagles fell short of their No. 1 target, free agent Byron Jones, but they traded two draft picks to the Lions and signed Darius Slay to a three-year, $50 million extension.
They went cheaper at safety, re-signing Rodney McLeod to a two-year, $8.6 million deal and Jalen Mills to a one-year, $4 million deal with plans of moving him from corner to safety. Will Parks was also inked to a one-year deal Saturday.
McLeod and Slay aren’t exactly young. The former turns 30 in June; the latter turns 30 next January. But they help address the leadership vacancy in the secondary. Mills, who mentored under Jenkins, has some of his passion.
Jenkins’ shoes will be hard to fill, however. He was a leader both in deed and in word. No one practiced as hard. No one watched as much film. No one spent as much time at the facility. No one gave as many speeches.
He wasn’t the only effective leader on the Eagles. Brandon Graham returns on defense. Jason Kelce returns on offense. There’s been a narrative that Jenkins’ leaving was also hastened by the team’s desire to see Wentz assume more control over the locker room.
Jenkins’ personality was immense. He could be benevolent. He could be domineering. He might have overshadowed others. But if the Eagles needed him to part for Wentz to become more of a leader, then they have greater problems.
Jenkins has thus far taken the high road. He spoke with Saints reporters Saturday, but the majority of questions focused on his return to New Orleans. In his Players’ Tribune piece, he thanked Philly, Eagles fans, his teammates and coaches, but only mentioned Lurie, Schwartz, and coach Doug Pederson by name.
The absence of Roseman’s name was no accident. Lurie was able to stay above the fray. He and Jenkins exchanged texts last week and when the Eagles granted the release, the owner didn’t renege on his promise. Roseman reached out to Jenkins, but his call wasn’t received.
The now-veteran GM understands that he will sometimes have to play the bad cop. Banner and Dawkins would eventually mend their fences. It’s likely that Jenkins will return to the Eagles one day to be inducted into their Hall of Fame.
But it should take time before any ill feelings subside — about as much time as it takes to assess the Eagles’ decision to let one of their best walk away.